I grew up in the 80’s which means I spent a lot of time watching, what else; 80’s movies! I was also extremely sheltered so I lived vicariously through Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders, Marty McFly in the Back to the Future Trilogy, and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars Saga. (Even though Episode 4 technically can’t be considered an 80’s movie because it was released in 1977). But my all-time favorite 80’s movie series has to be, without question, hands down…The Karate Kid.
Now that I’m an adult, I think back and realize how really inspirational those movies were to me, and I’m sure also for lots of other social outcasts. Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is the archetype cinematic hero for “the new kid on the block,” the geek, the pretty-boy all the other guys hated because their girlfriends thought he was cute, and all around odd-ball, fish-out-of-water, high-school, teenaged B-crowd nobody. The guy repeatedly gets the crap beat out of him by the more popular jocks, instantly making him identifiable with any kid whose ever been bullied in the school yard. This merciless assault on his puny bag of bones continues until Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), the quintessential fictional savior of all us pitiful “dweebs,” shows up to rescue him. The only thing better than seeing Daniel crane kick Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in his chin at the climax of the movie is when Ali Mills, played by Elisabeth Shue (Yes I had a crush on her too!) comes rushing out of the stands to congratulate him with a big, warm hug. So not only does Daniel get revenge, he also gets the girl. And I can honestly report as a certified dork, that never, ever happens in real life…which is why movies are the ultimate escapism in American society.
But besides the obvious attraction to the film because of the social invisibility motif, I also found other very profound elements within The Karate Kid. Honor is the theme of the second installment in which Daniel and Mr. Miyagi travel to Okinawa and save Mr. Miyagi’s village from being destroyed by an old friend turned nemesis. The most endearing scene of this movie, in my opinion, is the tea ceremony that Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) performs for Daniel. Everything about it evokes love, maturity, dignity, sophistication, culture and respect. It’s a sharp contrast, in comparison, to the frivolous and superficial image of romance often portrayed in western culture; whether it be “every kiss begins with Kay” engagement commercials or instant self-gratification sexual stimulation.
In the Karate Kid, Part III, nature takes center stage and we watch a bonsai tree that is uprooted from its natural habitat and badly damaged, fight for its survival. Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel that the bonsai has a strong root, just like him, and that they both can survive anything. The landscape is amazing in this film and despite the tricks and lies of a false sensei who seduces Daniel through the weakness of his fierce temper, our hero finds redemption; and the bonsai is returned home. It’s as if we are all called home to nature in this movie, where we can find peace.
I have to admit that, as a teenager, I was a male chauvinsit…as I believe most males to be at that age. We cannot help it. We are taught that boys are athletic, strong, and courageous. We are taught that girls are weak, clumsy, and in need of a strong man to save them. How could the Karate Kid be a girl, I wondered confusingly when I saw the advertisement for The Next Karate Kid staring Hilary Swank. So being the chauvinist pig that I was at 17 years of age, I never paid any attention to the fourth movie when it was originally released. I’m embarrassed to admit that I only watched it a few weeks ago…what an idiot I am! Julie Pierce kicks ass! I would not have messed with that girl in high school-at all! So we see the equality of women surface as a major theme of this movie and, once again, nature resurfaces as a minor theme through the explored concept of respect for all life, no matter how small or seemingly trifle to us human beings. Nothing living is permitted to be killed in the Buddhist monastery Mr. Miyagi and Julie visit during her training. That’s still a very timely message in this day and age.
Finally, the 2010 release of The Karate Kid staring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan as Mr. Han brings everything around full circle with the inclusion of African-Americans into this martial arts mythology. I sat in the movie theater and watched amongst a full house of Karate Kid fans, young and old, cheer Dre Parker on to victory. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought I was watching an actual kung fu tournament live on a closed circuit feed. We cheered as if we actually knew little Dre. He was our son, little brother, nephew or neighbor. The response of the crowd was definitely a testament to this franchises’ ability to connect with its audience time after time, generation after generation.
So where will the Karate Kid legend go from here? Has the journey ended or are there still miles ahead? Have the lessons concluded or are more themes waiting to be developed? Should there be another Karate Kid movie made, and I am definitely in favor of another movie, we’ll be there; the corny nerds all grown up, waiting to see some bully get a taste of their own medicine.